Eric Cantor’s Untended Fences

The House majority leader’s loss is a reminder of the old political adage: There are two ways to run — scared and unopposed.

Dave Brat, right, is congratulated by Johnny Wetlaufer after Brat defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary, Tuesday, June 10, 2014, in Richmond, Va. 
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS2014
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
June 12, 2014, 5 p.m.

While sur­prises are not that in­fre­quent in polit­ics, rarely is there one as shock­ing as Eric Can­tor’s primary loss to Ran­dolph-Ma­con Col­lege eco­nom­ist Dave Brat in Vir­gin­ia’s 7th Dis­trict. No House ma­jor­ity lead­er has ever be­fore lost a primary elec­tion, and Can­tor’s de­feat is the most stun­ning primary up­set of a con­gres­sion­al in­cum­bent in any­one’s memory. Pre­vi­ous top lead­er­ship losses — such as those of House Speak­er Tom Fo­ley in 1994, House Ma­jor­ity Whip John Brademas in 1980, and Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Tom Daschle in 2004 — were all in gen­er­al elec­tions.

No one ever sug­ges­ted to any of us at The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port that Can­tor might ac­tu­ally lose reelec­tion. Al­though the spend­ing in the last couple of months (more than $5 mil­lion this cycle) and the harsh, even reck­less neg­at­ive ads aired by the Can­tor cam­paign in the clos­ing weeks showed it was not com­pletely asleep, his polls nev­er re­vealed that the race was tight­en­ing. 

Can­tor’s cam­paign had re­leased a poll con­duc­ted for it by John McLaugh­lin on May 27 and 28 that showed him with a 34-point lead. The pre­dicted break­down was 62 per­cent to 28 per­cent — 27 per­cent­age points too low for Brat, 17 points too gen­er­ous for Can­tor. In fair­ness, screen­ing for likely voters in a June primary is not the easi­est of chores, par­tic­u­larly in GOP primar­ies in this tea-party era. Still, the turnout was not un­usu­ally low; it was roughly double the Demo­crat­ic turnout in Vir­gin­ia’s 8th Dis­trict primary to suc­ceed Rep. Jim Mor­an and was sub­stan­tially high­er than the 2012 pres­id­en­tial primary turnout. 

With high­er turnouts, polls tend to get more ac­cur­ate, not less, and a lower turnout, if that is what McLaugh­lin ex­pec­ted, would not ne­ces­sar­ily have be­nefited Can­tor, who spent little on get-out-the-vote activ­it­ies. In short, polling doesn’t get much “wronger” than this.

Shock­ing elec­tion res­ults rarely have a single cause, and this in­stance is no ex­cep­tion. Clearly, the biggest single policy is­sue was im­mig­ra­tion, which seemed to dom­in­ate cov­er­age in the fi­nal days. Con­ser­vat­ive web­sites like The Daily Caller were pound­ing Can­tor on im­mig­ra­tion, and a rally in the clos­ing days of the cam­paign that fea­tured con­ser­vat­ive com­ment­at­or Laura In­gra­ham re­portedly at­trac­ted 500 people. What is in­struct­ive about this is that Can­tor’s po­s­i­tions were fairly middle-of-the-road; he didn’t em­brace com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form along the lines of the Sen­ate bill. This will serve as a warn­ing sig­nal, not only to all Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates this year but to 2016 pres­id­en­tial hope­fuls as well, that the im­mig­ra­tion is­sue hasn’t changed that much since 2012, when Mitt Rom­ney used dem­agoguery to thwart Gov. Rick Perry’s rise.

But Can­tor’s de­feat wasn’t just about im­mig­ra­tion. A heavy dose of gen­er­ic tea-party, anti-Wash­ing­ton sen­ti­ment seemed to be at work as well. Al­though Can­tor is con­ser­vat­ive by any ra­tion­al stand­ard, he is also a cer­ti­fied mem­ber of the Wash­ing­ton and Re­pub­lic­an con­gres­sion­al lead­er­ship es­tab­lish­ment. Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell suc­cess­fully dealt with some of the same dy­nam­ics in his primary, but he still must con­front this danger in the gen­er­al elec­tion. 

If a large swath of voters — dis­pro­por­tion­ately con­ser­vat­ive and Re­pub­lic­an — hates the ways of Wash­ing­ton, as well as how Con­gress does (or doesn’t) do its busi­ness, then an in­cum­bent who is one of the three or four most power­ful lead­ers can face big trouble. In short, “If we hate Con­gress, we must hate you most of all.”

And it should be noted that some of Can­tor’s ads pos­sibly con­trib­uted to his de­feat. His cam­paign un­leashed some pretty scur­ril­ous at­tacks on Brat for be­ing a “lib­er­al col­lege pro­fess­or.” Serving on a board of eco­nom­ists ad­vising state gov­ern­ment on eco­nom­ic pro­jec­tions for Vir­gin­ia while it happened to have a Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor (Tim Kaine) hardly makes you a lib­er­al col­lege pro­fess­or. Such an at­tack erodes the stature and cred­ib­il­ity of the can­did­ate who spon­sors the ad; these ads come across as reck­less and des­per­ate. It’s about time we start see­ing some ac­count­ab­il­ity for some of the worst of the neg­at­ive ads that are pol­lut­ing our air­waves. I hope we see this more of­ten.

On a more found­a­tion­al level, the high­er on the to­tem poll that mem­bers of the House and Sen­ate get, and the longer they are in of­fice, the great­er the tempta­tion to take voters back home for gran­ted. Once, after an en­trenched House com­mit­tee chair­man lost reelec­tion, someone from his dis­trict men­tioned that the con­gress­man used to at­tend and cam­paign at a county fair every year, but he had stopped com­ing in re­cent years. Elec­ted of­fi­cials need to be all over their states — or else. 

Like the old polit­ic­al ad­age says, there are two ways to run: scared and un­op­posed. In­cum­bents who are tar­geted early on usu­ally have already got­ten the mes­sage. I don’t re­call ever see­ing a sur­pris­ing up­set of an in­cum­bent who had been as­sidu­ously tend­ing polit­ic­al fences and vis­it­ing with con­stitu­ents reg­u­larly. On The Bull Ele­phant blog, Vir­gin­ia tea-party act­iv­ist Jam­ie Radtke cited a meet­ing five years ago with top Can­tor ad­viser Ray Al­len, at which he re­calls the lat­ter say­ing, “Eric Can­tor will nev­er hold a town-hall meet­ing. Over my dead body! You hear me?”

Town meet­ings are in­creas­ingly pain­ful for mem­bers of Con­gress, but they do serve a pur­pose. They al­low in­cum­bents to con­nect with voters in a raw, un­filtered way.

Par­tis­an­ship and ideo­logy have be­come per­vas­ive in this town. Over a couple of meals and in­form­al ex­changes, I found Can­tor to be very bright and highly com­pet­ent, and in private very can­did. He truly un­der­stands the chal­lenges fa­cing his party in the fu­ture. 

Today, that and five bucks will get him a cup of cof­fee at Star­bucks.

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